If you’ve been living under a rock since last March, I have something to tell you: the Cubs won the World Series, and 103 games in the regular season… what more is there to ask from such a young, talented team? Cubs fans should be smiling right now; they won their first World Series in 108 years and are looking to put out an even more talented team next year. They have the two players who led the majors in ERA in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, and have Jake Arrieta as a three starter, the same Jake Arrieta who won the Cy Young Award in 2015.
But wait, there’s more! With Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Willson Contreras, and Albert Almora, Jr., this Cubs team has several young players who can and will be threats to opponents in 2017. Despite being so young, the Cubs led the National League in both walks and on-base percentage, proving their inexperience in the highest level wouldn’t hurt them too much from a plate discipline standpoint. Their defense was historically phenomenal, leading baseball with a .745 defensive efficiency (percent of balls put in play turned into outs). Relative to the rest of the league, the Cubs put up the best mark of any team since at least 1950 (via Sam Miller of ESPN). Who knew that leading the National League in OPS+, ERA+, defensive efficiency, and having Joe Maddon as a manager would lead to such success?
Despite the plethora of positives for the North Siders, there is still a great deal of room for improvement. The small sample size that is the postseason “exposed” the Cubs’ youth, as many of the younger players went through slumps in which they couldn’t differentiate between a fastball and a breaking pitch, resulting in chasing pitches left and right. Right fielder Jason Heyward, the Cubs huge free-agent acquisition in the 2015 offseason, wasn’t himself in 2016. The career .268/.353/.431 hitter (entering 2016) ended up being a platoon against righties and a defensive replacement when it mattered most in the playoffs after slashing .230/.306/.325 in the regular season. Rented closer Aroldis Chapman will be a free agent this offseason, leaving the Cubs with some questions they need to answer in their bullpen.
Fact of the matter is, this Cubs team is showing that they’ll be dominant for years to come. One World Series is huge, but the success doesn’t end there. Usually, the phrase “wait till next year” is something Cubs fans use after their season inevitably ends on a low note. But this is the opposite. With so much talent, and the playoff experience they acquired this October, the Cubs will be looking to become the fourth team in National League history to win the World Series two years in a row. So yeah, just wait until next year. The only problem for the Cubs is, you still have to play the games, and win them. And they will, if they follow the points on their Wish List below.
1. Make renovations to the bullpen
With the departure of flame-throwing relief ace Aroldis Chapman, the Cubs bullpen won’t have the same intimidation factor in late innings of close games. The Cleveland Indians proved that in a short postseason series, an outstanding bullpen is nearly insurmountable; the Cubs just don’t have that yet. Adding to the loss of Chapman, key relievers Travis Wood and Joe Smith will also be free agents. Wood, the left-handed pitcher who appeared in nine more games than any other Cubs pitcher this year, will be a tough loss. They can live without Smith, as he only appeared in 16 games with the Cubs after a trade at the deadline sent him to Chicago. The Cubs also have an interesting situation in the rotation, with trade deadline acquisition Mike Montgomery appearing to be the clubs’ fifth starter in 2017 as of now. Montgomery was another important piece in the Cubs bullpen after trading for him, and his move from the pen will weaken it a little more.
Even with these losses, the Cubs bullpen won’t be bad, by any means; they won’t be that great either. Hector Rondon, who started the season in the closer role, had a 1.95 ERA before the addition of Chapman and some injury problems took a toll on him. Pedro Strop, the seventh-inning pitcher for the Cubs, had a solid year, posting a 2.85 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, and a 4.00 K/BB ratio. Similarly to Rondon, Strop missed around a month at the end of the season due to injury. Carl Edwards, Jr., the 24-year-old rookie who made an impressive showing in 2016, will likely get a more permanent role in the bullpen. In 36 innings pitched in 2016, opponents hit a mere .121 against Edwards. That trails only Mike Adams (2009) and Chapman (2014) for the lowest opponent batting average of any pitcher with at least 30 IP in a season in MLB history. Justin Grimm, Spencer Patton, and Rob “You Can’t Pronounce My Last Name” Zastryzny will all make returns to the bullpen, but likely won’t be much better than average. The bullpen as a whole definitely won’t be bad, but it is the part that the Cubs need to clean up the most.
Fortunately for them, the free agent relief pitchers have a lot to offer to the Cubs. The list includes former rental Chapman, NL Relief Pitcher of the Year Kenley Jansen, and other good closers such as Mark Melancon and Sergio Romo. The problem is, these players won’t come cheap to them, as relief pitchers will likely get deals unheard of for their position this offseason. Travis Wood, the longest tenured player on the Cubs 2016 roster, is a must sign, and won’t be overly expensive. They also could make a deal similar to the one that got them Chapman, a couple of prospects for a good relief pitcher on a rebuilding team. Whatever decision they make, their pen will make an impact on their success, or lack thereof, in October.
2. Do something with Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward did not have a good season for the Cubs, we know that. He had a career low in homers, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, etc. He was a hole in the Cubs’ order, but has fantastic defense kept him playing in an everyday role, until the playoffs came around. In a few games, the Cubs just came to accept that Heyward wasn’t contributing enough on offense to play solely because of his defense and base running. Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to show off your base running with a .306 OBP.
The question is, was this a fluke? When a player with a career OPS+ of 114 comes into his age-26 season after finishing 15th in NL MVP voting and then posts an OPS+ of 70, something is obviously wrong. He was hitting a ton of grounders, he made weak contact on nearly every pitch on the inside and outside parts of the plate. Here are a couple of charts of his batting average on pitches on each part of the plate in his career, compared to this seasons’ (via baseballsavant.mlb.com):
Heyward just wasn’t getting a good swing on pitches that weren’t right over the plate. That looks like something an offseason can fix; if it can’t, Heyward may not even be a regular for the Cubs next year, as they may not have room for him. With great a young outfield featuring Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora, Jr., and a great farm system that includes young stars Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ, there isn’t a position Heyward has locked up. And that’s if Dexter Fowler decides to go somewhere else (I’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs).
If the Cubs believe that this is where Heyward will be next year, they can always trade him and call the 2015 move a loss. Problem is, there likely won’t be a team that would trade for Heyward, unless the Cubs paid the majority of the remainder of his huge deal. This probably won’t happen, as it looks like the Cubs still see something in Heyward and don’t want to give up on him quite yet.
3. Re-Sign Dexter Fowler
On February 23, 2016, reports said that Dexter Fowler was heading to Baltimore to play for the Orioles. Jon Heyman tweeted that the deal was for three years and $33 million, and MASNsports.com reported it would be three years for $35 million. At that point, it wasn’t a matter of where Fowler would end up — it was for how much. Cubs fans frowned, as Fowler was going to be the Cubs starting center fielder if he had decided to come back. And come back he did. A couple of days later, Fowler surprised fans everywhere as he reported to Cubs spring training, announcing he had signed a one-year, $13 million deal to play in Chicago, not Baltimore.
Fowler then had a career year in 2016, posting career highs in OBP, OPS+, and WAR in his age-30 season. The Cubs won 68 percent of the games Fowler played in, the best of any player in the majors (minimum 100 games played) and better than every other Cubs player since at least 1913. Fact of the matter is, Fowler was a very important player to the Cubs, and likely would be if the Cubs are willing to pay for him. He’d start in center, with Schwarber and Soler platooning in left, and Heyward starting in right with Almora backing him up. Without him, Schwarber would start in left, but Heyward would get moved to center, and Soler and Almora will alternate in right. Their lineup would also be much weaker without him, as Ben Zobrist or Javier Baez would likely take over the leadoff role.
Nonetheless, the Cubs will be able to get around without Fowler, but signing him would have a dramatic impact on the team in multiple ways.
4. Move to the American League
Like it or not, the Cubs have too much talent, to the point where young star Javier Baez doesn’t have anywhere to start. He excels defensively at every infield position and is valuable offensively, as well; unfortunately, with Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant in the infield and a loaded outfield that prevents them from playing Bryant or Zobrist there, Baez likely won’t start every day for them. They only have one option: move to the AL where they could use a designated hitter. Problem solved. Not really, so let’s change this goal.
4a. Make a big move
The Cubs offense is set for next year. So set that it means Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora likely won’t be everyday starters. Luckily for the Cubs, they can take advantage of this. While it may mean trading away one of their starters, the reward can be incredible. Let’s take a look at some potential players who, in my opinion, the Cubs can trade away:
Jorge Soler. At 25 years old, Soler likely won’t play more than 100 games for the Cubs next season. He has a career OPS of .762, and he plays decent right field and below-average left field. In a trade, the Cubs would need to look at AL teams first, as Soler would be an ideal candidate for a starting DH role. Packaged with a prospect, the Cubs might be able to get a decent end-of-the-rotation starter or a good relief pitcher.
Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is as consistent as you get when it comes to hitting, as he has kept his batting average in the .270s in each of the last five seasons. The 2016 season was especially good for him, posting an OPS+ of 124, his highest since 2012. He has walked more times than he has struck out in each of the last two seasons, has great contact, decent power, and can play just about anywhere in the field. A team looking for a veteran leader should immediately look at Zobrist but would likely need to give up a good pitcher for the Cubs to accept the offer. With Zobrist off the team, Baez would become the everyday starter at second, and the Cubs would solidify their intentions of becoming a team full of youth.
Javier Baez. I’m a Cubs fan, and Baez is one of my favorite players. I would be opposed to a trade involving him, and the Cubs’ front office probably would, too. The Cubs would need a really good offer to even consider trading Baez. But with their infield, Baez might not have a starting job. He’ll most likely play every day, getting occasional starts, or being a pinch hitter, pinch runner, or defensive substitution, but the lack of starts could hurt his development and lower his potential. By trading Baez, the Cubs could add a ton of talent in return. I’m talking Chris Sale, Chris Archer, or Julio Teheran talent. And the Cubs wouldn’t settle for anyone less than that, because they don’t need to trade him. Baez is already a star, and his ability to win a Gold Glove at basically any position while also slugging in the upper .400s at age 24 is something teams want. His strikeout ratio is still going down, as his eye is improving as his time in the majors increases. This trade likely won’t happen, but it’s still something to talk about.
The Cubs do not need to make a big trade, and likely won’t unless their front office spots a great one. And that doesn’t really matter, because even without making any moves this offseason, the Cubs will likely still be contending for the best record in the majors.
The North Siders have the most talented team in Major League Baseball, with 103 regular season wins and a World Series ring to show for it. Out of all the teams in baseball, they look to be in the best position in both the near and distant future. However, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still look to add even more talent to win even more games. If they accomplish some of these items on this list, don’t be surprised seeing them playing in late October and early November. And if they don’t listen to anything on here … I still wouldn’t be surprised seeing them in November. Theo Epstein knows what he’s doing.